The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.


Stefan Denolyubov in ‘Glory.’  credit:

After a fair amount of TV and short films work, the directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov bring us their third feature film, Glory (Slava) (Bulgaria, 2016), very soon after the well-received 2016 release of The Lesson (Urok).

Glory starts out in Capra-esque Meet John Doe mode, as our shaggy-dog protagonist Tsanka (Stefan Denolyubov) discovers a misplaced pile of cash along the railway lines he inspects every day. He, of course, does the right thing and reports it, which, of course, leads him into an ever-darkening ordeal of manipulation and hypocrisy, courtesy of the public relations arm of the Transportation Ministry.  But where Capra allowed Barbara Stanwyck her sharp edges in order to frame and validate the overall populism of that story, Grozeva and Valchanov use the extraordinary Margita Gosheva, as ministry PR barracuda Julia Staykova, to illustrate their view that the shaggy dogs – indeed, any regular citizens – don’t stand a chance against the greedy whims of the system, nor the people within it who use that power for their own aggrandizement. Grozeva and Valchanov’s narrative transitions from comedy to cautionary tale to blackest irony are unerring, Krum Rodriguez’ camerawork is seamlessly superb, and Gosheva is revelatory. There are many very good films here this weekend, but this one should be near the top of your list.

Glory will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee), Monday the 24th at 6:00 pm, and Tuesday the 25th at 8:45 pm.


A modest but assured directing debut, Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi (Tunisia, 2016) seems pretty formulaic on its surface. Hedi (Majd Mastoura) is a meek and mousy younger ‘good son,’ living with his conservative, high-maintenance social-butterfly mother in Kairouan, Tunisia, working a thankless job as one-of-many fleet-car sales agents for Peugeot, and preparing for his arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local dignitary. Nonetheless, his bosses insist that he make sales calls in a faraway territory, and he’s sent to the coastal city of Mahdia to drum up some business despite Tunisia’s ongoing post-Jasmine-Revolution economic doldrums. Disheartened with the pointless sales calls and his prosaic life, Hedi happens upon the spirited Rim (Rym Ben Messaoud) – hired by hotels as a free-lance entertainer and activities coordinator, she leads an engaging and extroverted life- and begins a passionate affair with her.

For all of its seeming predictability, these are extraordinarily well-observed, well-performed characters, and Ben Attia’s mise-en-scène is concise and evocative. Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme keeps a nice balance between claustrophobic interiors, cold and cavernous hotel lobbies and sunny-yet-sparsely-populated beaches, though he comes perilously close to ‘Shakycam’ overuse. Mastoura and Ben Messaoud are both excellent here, and the ending, after all, isn’t as predictable as might be imagined. There are always four or five small gems like this at the Festival every year, and I have no problem recommending this one to you.

Hedi screens on Friday, October 14th at 5:45 pm, Saturday the 15th at 3:30 pm, and Monday the 17th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Mohamed Ben Attia is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.


Art-directed feverishly, performed with real conviction by seasoned pros and rife with high-falutin’ concepts and conceits, Roberto Andò’s The Confessions (Le Confessioni) (Italy, 2016) is a film very stylishly dressed up with nowhere to go.

The institution we’re vicariously observing here is the International Monetary Fund, but most of what follows is, of course, fiction. The IMF director is Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil), and he is hosting a crucial financial summit of economic ministers in an undisclosed German resort hotel to determine The Next Big Steps. But Roché has invited along a few others – a famous children’s author, Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), a popular musician, Michael Wintzl (Johan Heldenbergh, a superb Belgian actor whom I daresay is entirely wasted here), and a monk and writer of philosophy, Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo) who seems to have temporarily dispensed with his Vow of Silence in order to, unbeknownst to the others, hear Roché’s confession the night before the summit. And before you can say, “Wait, why are these people here?!” Roché is discovered dead in his room the following morning.

This scenario frees up Andò, and his fellow writer Angelo Pasquini, to lead us along a trail of seemingly profound and mysterious breadcrumbs concerning governments, finance, secret societies, and spirituality. The action splits between ministerial reactions to the aftermath of Roché’s demise (Which report will affect markets more – murder or suicide?) in present time, and a series of flashbacks to that fateful evening conversation between Roché and Salus. The latter would have been a perfectly fine 15-20 minute film, but this one is longer, much longer, with that time taken up with terrific actors saddled with zingers like “Banks are modern secret societies, and, like the Mafia, they don’t need to answer to anyone,” and the children’s book author persuading the monk to talk to the Canadian minister (Marie-Josée Croze, doing her damndest) about her vote…? It’s a mess, but it’s a respectably-budgeted, good-looking mess, so, y’know, that’s worth your $11 or $15 – or not…

The Confessions screens on Friday, October 14th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 17th at 7:00 pm as well.

Director/writer Roberto Andò is scheduled to attend both screenings.



Qodratollah Qadiri and Sediqa Rasuli in ‘Wolf And Sheep.’  credit: Virginie Surdej

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf And Sheep (Denmark / Afghanistan, 2016) is one of the reasons people bother putting on international film festivals at all. While it’s a remarkable ethnographic portrayal of isolated shepherd culture and society in deep rural Afghanistan, it’s also a surprising mirror on our own Western ideas about commonwealth, family and the fates of our children.

While the grown-ups are in charge in the small village, the town’s large and indispensable population of sheep is entirely under the management of its children, who bring them out to graze every day and ensure the flock’s safe return in evening. Boys and girls don’t mix – indeed, one small flock is maintained by only one girl, Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli) – and each group amuses itself at their work in specific ways. The boy-shepherds fashion slings to hurl rocks at interloping wolves, and hurl astonishingly pornographic insults at each other. The girls speculate on married life and potential husbands, and derisively lament Sediqa’s bleak fate as the cursed granddaughter of a blind woman who nursed a demon snake. We also meet Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), the handsome and dutiful son whose father’s funeral starts the film. But Qodrat’s mother is taken as a third wife by a village man who isn’t interested in tending children, and Qodrat, blameless, finds himself shunned and derided as well.

Well written and well crafted, Sadat’s film (her impressive debut) won the Cannes Director’s Fortnight top prize this year – there’s a reason. I recommend it.

Wolf And Sheep will screen on Friday, October 14th at 8:00 pm, Saturday the 15th at 1:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 1:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Shahrbanoo Sadat is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.


Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg have been on a bit of a run, with the Lindholm-written-and-directed A Hijacking and his providing the screenplay for the Vinterberg-directed The Hunt (Jagten). They’re seasoned pros whose work is always noteworthy, but their newest collaboration, The Commune (Kollektivet) Denmark, 2016), just doesn’t come together as well as it might.

Vinterberg himself, as a child, lived in a communal household, but he’s more interested in examining the dynamic than reliving particular episodes – he’s stated that while the 70s timeframe is the same, his and Lindholm’s film is fundamentally fiction. Erik (Ulrich Thomson) is a longtime architecture professor who is married to Anna Moller (the superb Trine Dyrholm), a well-known local TV news anchor, and they have a teenaged daughter as well, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen).When Erik inherits the huge house of his late family, he’s reluctant to take it on, but the freewheeling Anna convinces him to invite in their friends and give communal living a try. Vinterberg and Lindholm have created a structure where lots of interesting and intertwining things can happen – it’s a varied and somewhat appealing collection of friends and contemporaries – but the group is too broadly brushstroked, too much of a vague but happy blur, to really leave much of a narrative impression. Anna is happy with the arrangement initially, but her tolerance for liberated adventure is tested when Erik starts an affair with one of his young architecture students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), and wants to incorporate her into the collective household. It’s this conflict, and its distancing effect on the others, that the film focuses on, most notably in chronicling Anna’s disintegration from cheery and gracious housemother to abandoned and embittered nervous wreck.

Vinterberg is smart to keep the period trappings to a minimum, and it’s all handsomely shot by the young Jesper Tøffner. Dyrholm’s Gena-Rowlands-like fireworks are almost worth the admission alone, but her story unfortunately overwhelms everything else that might have been interesting about the rest of the film.  I can’t generally recommend it overall.

The Commune will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 8:30 pm and Saturday the 15th at 1:00 pm.





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